Somalia at the crossroads

About the author
Harun Hassan worked for Associated Press and the BBC in Somalia. He currently works as a freelancer.
The Somali government and its Ethiopian allies – now backed by United States military force – have won the battle for Somalia. But the war cannot end without a political settlement, says Harun Hassan.

Somalia's enigmatic conflict has taken yet another dramatic turn. As 2006 ended and 2007 dawned, after six months of political stand-off and military build-up going on side-by-side, the situation exploded into full armed confrontation.

The result was a lightning victory for the Ethiopian army and its Somali allies, namely the Baidoa-based transitional federal government (TFG) and the "freelance" warlords supporting it. Their adversaries, the militias of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), were defeated and scattered (and, from 7 January 2007, subjected to heavy bombardment by the United States air force). In the space of ten days, Somalia's political prospects have been reversed in the most unpredictable circumstances.

A conflict that grew from small, local beginnings has now exploded onto the front pages and television screens of the world's media, reflecting the sudden "global" reappropriation of the Somali conflict into the far larger narrative of the United States's "war on terror" (or "long war").

The latest developments on the ground, and comments by United States officials, confirm Somalia's new status as a third "theatre" in this war (after Iraq and Afghanistan). US planes launched a further wave of air strikes in southern Somalia on 10 January, following bombing raids targeting (according to these officials) al-Qaida leaders who allegedly have found refuge among elements of the ICU forces in the area. In a significant move, the European Union and the United Nations have criticised the US's tactics.

The US has named three men, whom they accuse of involvement in the August 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania which claimed 250 lives: Fazul Abdullah Mohamed (from the Comoros Islands); Abu Talha al-Sudani (a Sudanese) and Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan (a Kenyan). There has been no confirmed sighting of the three men in Somalia, though reports suggest that Fazul Abdullah Mohamed was killed in the latest raid; in any case, the anarchy in the country and the lack of strong central government have exposed its borders (air, sea and land) to all kinds of abuse for a long time.

The area the US planes are bombing is a large jungle stretching for about 200 kilometres along the Somalia-Kenya border where the ICU militias are putting up stiff resistance. The US's main military objective is to crush the remnants of the ICU to a point of no return. The ICU here may still have more than 2,000 men in arms and ready to fight. The Somali media report that Ethiopian troops on the ground took heavy casualties on 7-8 January and hence asked for the US bombardment. Ethiopian MIG jets themselves had been bombing this area for about ten days but are unlikely to have the capacity for the pinpoint strikes that the US's superior technology can guarantee.

In all this military escalation, it is too easy to forget that innocent civilians - including those already displaced by and fleeing from the war - are being killed, perhaps in considerable numbers. Some farmers of the region are also losing the animals that are the foundation of their livelihood. This situation has the ingredients of a humanitarian disaster that compounds Somalia's already endemic human insecurity.

Harun Hassan worked for Associated Press and the BBC in Somalia. He currently works as a freelancer

Also by Harun Hassan in openDemocracy:

"Not housewives any more: Somali women of the diaspora"
(November 2002)

"Black Hawk Down: the Baghdad sequel?"
(April 2003)

"In Mogadishu objectivity is a luxury most journalists cannot afford"
(April 2003)

"The ‘Axis of Anarchy'"
(June 2003)

"Iraq: the lesson from Somalia"
(October 2003)

"Somalia: exit into history?"
(February 2004)

"America's two faces in Somalia"
(August 2004)

"Yahya: death of a peace campaigner"
(July 2005)

"Somalia twists in the wind"
(April 2006)

"Somalia's new Islamic leadership"
(June 2006)

"Somalia's thorny road"
(August 2006)

"Somalia's stony path"
(5 October 2006)

"Somalia slides into war"
(3 November 2006)

"Somalia: diplomacy's last chance"
(6 December 2006)

Dispersal and retreat

The war for Somalia, then, has entered a decisive new phase. Even less than a month ago, the current situation would have seemed an astonishing outcome. On 12 December 2006, the commander of the then-confident Islamic Courts Union militias in Somalia gave the Ethiopian troops supporting the Somali government a week's ultimatum to leave the country or face being ousted by force. But even as he made the announcement, Ethiopia had (amid scornful denials of any such activity in Addis Ababa) deployed several mechanised brigades inside Somalia and prepared them for war.

On 20 December, a day after the ICU deadline passed, gunfire crackled at the frontline between the two sides near the Somali government's temporary base at Baidoa. A new phase of the war had begun. Eight days later, the Ethiopian army had (with their Somali allies) captured the Somali capital Mogadishu and other major urban centres previously controlled by the ICU. The militants of a crumbling ICU, losing one town after the other, were forced to flee further south into the jungle-ridden region bordering Kenya.

There were two crucial factors in the unexpected good fortune of the Somali government, which had been at the receiving end of a fierce onslaught just before the final conflict. The first was the ICU's underestimation of the power of the Ethiopian army. Between 8,000 and 10,000 Ethiopian troops were reportedly involved in the fighting, armed with US-made helicopter gunships and tanks, jet fighters and heavy artillery. This force, aided by 3,000 government militias, was almost twice as large as the ICU militias, armed only with AK-47s, machineguns and bazookas.

The second factor was that the ICU's tactical plan - to capture Baidoa and turn the battle into urban and street warfare (which most of its fighters are familiar with) - went disastrously wrong, as they were forced to take on a conventional army in an open frontline. Even so, for seven days neither side had made any significant territorial gains until the ICU's defences in the central regions of Somalia collapsed.

At that point, the Ethiopian and Somali government forces took the initiative and forced the ICU militias to retreat from Baidoa. Soon, one town after another fell and the ICU was never given a chance to regroup. On 27 December the Ethiopians and their Somali allies marched into the capital unopposed. ICU fighters had been expected to fight in Mogadishu and the southerly town of Kismayo; instead they opted to retreat, and perhaps for a guerrilla war from the bush.

On 28 December 2006, Somalia entered a new era.

Victors and vanquished

Three winners and three losers emerge from the latest battle for Somalia.

The first winner is Somalia's transitional federal government itself. This body is now expected to relocate to Mogadishu (for the first time since its formation in Kenya in 2004) to fill the political vacuum, backed by a contingent of African Union troops to be deployed in the country soon.

The second victor is the Ethiopian government, which executed a decisive political and military strategy by crushing the potential for the emergence of a powerful, hostile neighbour. At the least, Ethiopia has averted (perhaps for several years) the arrival of a Somali government led by individuals combining strong religious beliefs with nationalistic tendencies.

The third winner is the United States, which has for the time being won its proxy war against Somalia's Islamic leaders whom it accuses of having links with al-Qaeda and harbouring wanted terrorists (claims yet to be substantiated).

The first of the three losers in this conflict is the Islamic Courts Union. The ICU has paid the price of its political immaturity and rash decisions. The very strength of its militias compared to the forces of the TFG, and the huge territory it came to control in the course of 2006, proved a double-edged sword in terms of its capacity for flexibility and compromise (see "Somalia's new Islamic leadership", 13 June 2006).

The second vanquished element is Eritrea, which has lost a key ally in its proxy tussle with Ethiopia for regional influence. It has, however, been learned that Eritrea had no military personnel in Somalia (against UN claims that as many as 2,000 Eritrean troops were present).

The third loser is international diplomacy, which has lost ground to violence and the preference for military action. Somalia's latest armed confrontation could have been avoided if there had been honest and firm diplomacy at crucial moments. This failure casts shame on the international community as well as the immediate combatants.

The involvement of an Islamist group helped give Somalia's latest conflict an international dimension. Yet for months, the United Nations, United States, European Union, African Union and the Arab League chose to look on as the trouble escalated towards armed confrontation. These agencies may have had conflicting interests, and doubts about Ethiopia's deployment of its army across the border "in defence of the national interest" - but they chose silence or consent. Their attitude is a green light to similar "pre-emptive invasions".

Ethiopia and Somalia

This conflict has been depicted as a regional, proxy or even (in ideological terms) a global conflict. The deeper if less headline-friendly truth is that it is yet another round of the long history of conflict between the two societies of Ethiopia and Somalia.

Ethiopia's main daily papers have used the term "mission accomplished" after their forces entered the Somali capital. Likewise, many Somali media outlets have described 28 December 2006 as a dark day in Somalia's history. This gives us an indication why these two countries may be the biggest losers in this conflict.

There is a long history of tension between these lands. Ethiopia's ancient kingdoms - from the 2nd-century CE kingdom of Aksum - invaded and ruled many parts of Somalia. The Somalis (or "black Berbers" as they were then known) were pushed towards coastal areas where they enjoyed close, trade-based relations with the ancient Egyptians. Somali dynasties and sultanates thus experienced torrid contacts with their Ethiopian equivalents; but tension worsened even further when Islam reached Somalia in the 9th century.

In the early 16th century, one of the most catastrophic wars took place. A Somali warrior with a desire to expand the rule of Islam, Imam Ahmed Gurey (or Ahmed Gran), was aided by the Ottoman empire to invade Ethiopia and defeat the army of its emperor Lebna Dengel. Along the way he captured vast lands and slaughtered many people who refused to convert to Islam. But the Ethiopians regrouped and (with the help of Portugal) counter-attacked, defeated and killed Gurey.

Four centuries later - in the wake of the imperial "scramble for Africa" at the beginning of the 20th century - another Somali warrior, Sayyid Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, took up arms against the British who then occupied parts of Somalia. To stay on good terms with the European colonialists, the Ethiopian emperor Menelik II joined the campaign against the Somali leader in support of Britain by invading Somalia's Ogaden region.

In an early stage in its own era of imperial retreat, Britain in 1948 granted the Ogaden to Ethiopia and asked the UN to consider other parts of Somalia for independence. Somalia launched military operations in 1964 and 1977 to regain this region, but failed.

It is this history which overshadows the current predicament and Ethiopia's presence in Somalia. It is a past that haunts many people from the two countries.

In practice, this may not be a war between two governments, because the internationally recognised Somali government is at present in a mutually supportive relationship with the Ethiopians. But theoretically and ideologically, it is also war between the two societies.

In this light, the political soundbites and the international dimension of the current situation are less important than this latest black spot in the relationship between the two neighbouring societies. The reason for this is that history will not recall Ethiopia's triumphant operation in Somalia as the work of two allied governments, but rather as one of the greatest military success against the rise of political Islam in Africa - if not the whole world.

War and politics

Somalia's president, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, says that this moment is a new beginning for Somalia and a chance for the international community to help. The US, EU and the AU have responded. It is now official that AU troops will be sent in - perhaps as early as the end of January - although their mission's mandate has not been specified.

Ethiopia's leader Meles Zenawi says it intends to keep its troops in Somalia for only a few weeks, and to leave once the AU troops arrive - a position supported by the US and British government. But the victorious Somali prime minister, as he returned to the capital, says the Ethiopians will stay as long as the Somali government needs them to stay. This very sensitive option is a real possibility. Could it also turn victory into defeat?

There are two reasons to think so. The first is that the Ethiopian intervention is a diplomatic nightmare for the international community. When the east African regional states initially proposed - after long and painful two-year negotiations - sending troops to Somalia in support of the Somali government, they were careful to exclude countries bordering Somalia (Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti) - as all three had conflicting interests over Somalia as well as large ethnic Somali populations.

This view was echoed after the formation of the Somali government in 2004, when the transitional parliament approved the deployment of African troops but specifically excluded the same neighbouring countries. In December 2006 too, when the United Nations adopted a resolution allowing the deployment of 8,000 African forces in Somalia, these same three nations were again excluded. All this makes a strong case that the Ethiopian entry into Somalia violated international norms and legality.

Second, the three engaged governments - Somali, Ethiopian and American - will find it hard to change the perception of Somalis towards the Ethiopian forces, considering the circumstances of their entry, specifically if the situation on the ground becomes unfavourable to the latter (if, for instance, the TFG fails to deliver and insecurity continues to reign, and/or the ICU re-emerges from the bush).

There have already been anti-Ethiopian demonstrations in Mogadishu in protest at attempts to collect arms. The Somali government has now delayed the arms-collection policy indefinitely. Meanwhile, tension is rising in the central town of Beletweyne after the Ethiopians detained a high-ranking commander of the Somali government forces after he pardoned and refused to hand over the local chairman of the Islamic Courts to the Ethiopians.

The problem for the government with regard to the defeated ICU is that the latter carries no political stigma other than the allegation by the US and Ethiopia of links with terrorists. Thus, if it survives the current onslaught, it will not be surprising if some ICU officials reappear in major towns in a few months.

Present and future

This makes a diplomatic option continually relevant. The prospective deployment of African Union troops will also need new and creative political initiatives in order to reach a solution. The Somali government will have to act in a reconciliatory manner and avoid vengeance and scapegoating; militias and clans will have to be disarmed across the country on equal terms and in return be given guarantees of justice and security; the government will have to avoid disunity while trying to perform miracles of delivery.

The Somali government and its Ethiopian allies have occupied places where the ICU has ruled for several months with a substantial record of achievement: it implemented law and order, opened all the ports (along the longest coastline in Africa), rebuilt major government institutions (the presidential palace, Mogadishu's international airport, the high court, the prison, and the foreign- and information-ministry blocks) - and disarmed all the warlords. It is a tall order for the government, but even half of what ICU has managed in the same period would be seen by many Somalis as a significant step.

The military success of the Somali government and the Ethiopians, and the post-war deployment of troops, will count for nothing if no solution is found to the politics of one of Africa's most complicated conflicts. Any failure here will haunt African Union's military commanders who will have to deal with the political fallout, and the Somali people will continue to suffer.

Somalia, Ethiopia (and the US) have already made one major political error, by installing four warlords (none even members of the Somali government) to govern areas they ruled before the ICU ejected them.

This raises in sharp form the question of whether the ICU could make a comeback. Somalia's political process has been stagnant for most of the past sixteen years - dominated by the same warlords and clan leaders. The dramatic turn of early summer 2006 brought the ICU to a commanding position, which they went on to lose after six months. The present stage will see two major deployments of foreign troops within a short period. The chances of yet more surprises are real. Will one of them be the return of the ICU through guerrilla war, or in the form of another resistance group.

Two scenarios could contribute to the return of the Islamic Courts Union. The first is that the transitional federal government continues to rely on foreign support - from Ethiopia or other African troops, or both - but does not earn the trust of ordinary Somalis. The second is that the TFG does not find a political mechanism either to accommodate or to expunge the freelance warlords, thus making the restoration of security very difficult. The longer these warlords stay outside the government the more opposition groups are likely to increase.

The battle has been won, at least for the moment. Yet there is no sign that the war will end soon. Somalia remains at the crossroads.